‘I thought he was out,’ says James, pushing his fingers back through his hair and staring at us as we pass. ‘His door was shut. I thought he was out.’
We hurry up the stairs on to a landing where only one door is open. Inside, a man is lying spread-eagled on his back on the bed by the window. Even from here you can tell he is dead. There is a puce tide line of pooled blood along the lower aspect of either arm, and a clump of dried brown vomitus set in his mouth, like he’d fallen asleep chewing a dirty sponge. We give the scene a brief recce, looking for anything that might hint at the cause – a scattering of pill packets, a syringe or a bottle of alcohol – but nothing seems amiss. There is a jacket and a rucksack tossed on an armchair, a mobile phone and a bunch of keys on the dresser by the telly.
‘It looks like he came in, took off his stuff, threw himself back on the bed and just died.’
‘He must have passed out for some reason, aspirated and choked to death.’
We head back down stairs. James is waiting for us at the door to the lounge.
‘I’m afraid Rick has died,’ I tell him.
‘Oh God,’ he says. ‘Died? Oh God.’
He stuffs both hands into his jeans pockets, then almost immediately takes them out and folds his arms, like an actor suddenly overcome with self-consciousness. ‘Jesus. I just thought he was out.’
‘Can we get you anything? A glass of water? Cup of tea?’
‘No. Thanks. I’m good. Do you mind if I smoke? Jesus. I was here all day.’ He stares at us. ‘I thought he was out.’
‘You’d have no reason to think otherwise.’
‘I mean – I’ve been here all day. With Rick – I mean - Jesus!’
He turns back into the living room, a scruffy but comfortable house-share set up, with piles of DVDs by the TV, throws on the sofas, a blanket chest with remote controls, an empty two litre bottle of coke and a glass ashtray overflowing with stubs.
‘So when was the last time you saw Rick alive?’
‘Last night. Well – I didn’t see him. I heard him – come back from the pub. About one.’
‘Anyone with him?’
‘No. He was on his own. Then when I got up about midday, I went to the bathroom, saw his door was shut and thought he’d gone to work.’
‘Had he complained of feeling unwell at all that day?’
‘No. Far as I know.’
‘Is there anything in his past medical history? You know – heart problems, breathing problems, that kind of thing?’
‘Nothing. He was pretty fit. Oh Jesus – I should ring his parents.’
‘Don’t worry about that just for the moment, James. The police are on their way and they’ll help you through that part of things. Just take a few minutes to get over the shock of all this, we’ll get down what information we can, and when the police arrive we’ll take it from there. And don’t worry about them coming. It’s purely routine. Anytime there’s an unexpected death at home, they have to attend.’
He rolls himself a cigarette. When he lights it, there’s so little tobacco in the paper it flares wildly.
A Sergeant and another officer come up the path. I meet them at the door and tell them what we found so far. The Sergeant goes in to the front room to introduce himself to James and explain what happens next. The other hangs around in the hallway with us for a moment.
‘This is beyond a joke,’ he says, rubbing his face. ‘Third today.’
‘Yep. Don’t touch me. You’ll drop down dead on the spot.’
The Sergeant comes out and smiles at us.
‘Lead on,’ he says.
We take them up the stairs into Jack’s bedroom.
‘How long do you think?’ says the Sergeant, leaning over the body.
‘A few hours,’ I tell him. ‘I imagine he died pretty soon after coming home from the pub.’
The Sergeant straightens up.
‘And nothing suspicious, you say.’
‘Nope. Nothing I could see.’
‘What about this whacking great bruise in the centre of his forehead, then?’
‘Whacking great bruise? What whacking great bruise?’
He stands aside and I lean over to look. And it’s true – right in the centre of Jack’s forehead is a flat, circular discolouration the diameter of a teacup.
The Sergeant turns to his subordinate.
‘Get on the blower and tell them we’ve got a sus death, so we’ll need a DI, SOC and the Coroner's Officer. Yeah?’ He turns back to me.
‘And you didn’t touch anything? Move the body? Crack the window, that kind of thing?’
‘Nope. It’s all as was. I can’t believe I missed that mark on his forehead, though!’
‘It’s okay,’ says the Sergeant. ‘Sometimes I think the more obvious it is, the more likely you are to miss it.’
We head back downstairs. The Sergeant puts us in the kitchen.
‘I’m afraid I can’t let you go until you’ve spoken to the rest of the team,’ he says. ‘Is that all right?’
Rae leans back against the kitchen counter. I finish off the paperwork, squeezing in the detail of the bruise, horribly conscious that anyone with a brain could tell it was an after-thought.
‘There’s no way that head injury could account for his death,’ I tell Rae, as a number of heavy feet clump about upstairs, a sequence of progressively important people arrive at the front door and are shown up. ‘No way. I reckon he was a bit pissed from the pub, stumbled and clonked his head against the wall, lay down on the bed for a moment, passed out, aspirated.’
‘I can’t believe I missed it, though.’
There is another knock on the door. I wait for someone to come down and get it, but probably because they’re all too busy to hear, no-one does. On the second knock I go into the hallway and open the door.
Standing there is a stooped, unshaven man in a checked shirt and jeans with what looks like a lunchbox on a strap slung over his shoulder. For a moment I wonder if he’s a relative, an electrician, or maybe the landlord. I’m just about to explain the situation and why he might want to come back later, when he raises his eyebrows and nods.
‘Coroner's Officer,’ he says. ‘Can I come in?’
‘Oh. Of course. Hi,’ I say. ‘They’re all upstairs.’
He strolls up. After a second or two I hear mutual greetings, a loose and friendly sound, like a bunch of commuters meeting up in their usual carriage for the ride in to work.
‘Something to do with the Coroner,’ I say to Rae. She yawns, and hugs herself.
‘I wonder if they’ll be taking our boots and uniform,’ she says. ‘That’d be good for another couple of hours, at least.’
Eventually the Coroner's Officer comes back down into the kitchen and leans against the counter with us. He smiles, folds his arms and looks down at his shoes.
‘How are you doing?’ he says.
‘Not bad. You?’
‘Good. I’m good,’ he says. ‘So – what do you think? You found the body, is that right?’
‘Yes – and I’m so embarrassed. I can’t think how I missed that bruise.’
He shrugs. ‘Easily done,’ he says. ‘Well, now. Technically all this counts as unexplained, but I’m guessing our chap bished his head on something when he was coming back from the pub – not in any big way. He lies down, passes out and aspirates. That’s what it looks like. He has an interesting bruise between his thumb and index finger – here – not something you see all that often, but probably where he puts his hand when he falls – like this – a guarding injury, do you see? We’ll establish all this later. For now, I think you chaps are free to go. I imagine we’ve got all your details. The paperwork and such.’
I hand him copies.
‘That’s great. Thank you so much for all you’ve done. I hope the rest of your shift is – less eventful.’
We shake his hand, pick up our bags and head outside.
Just as we reach the door I half expect him to say Just one more thing, but when I turn to look he simply waves goodbye, and then quietly turns and walks back up the stairs.